CHIANG MAI, Thailand — It seems rather awkward for outsiders to comment at this time on the tragic developments in the “deep South” of Thailand. Yet even Thai public opinion at large does not appear sufficiently informed of the extent of the events occurring there. One aspect of the drama that should be brought to the attention of the broader Asian and international public is the newly instituted National Reconciliation Commission, a bright testimony to the traditional Thai sense of tolerance.
Amid much tension and violence, which is alien to the gentle Thai psyche, as well as fears that the turmoil might escalate, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appealed to a distinguished predecessor, Anand Panyarachun, and asked him to organize a commission whose basic, elusive aim would be “reconciliation.”
The fact that these two popular leaders agreed so easily on the general framework, mandate and composition of the commission shows the maturity and depth of the political sense of responsibility of the Thai leadership. Most people, anywhere in the world, are usually suspicious of news that yet another “commission” has been created, as such action often hides a plethora of negative aspects, including a lack of courage or an urge to cover things up and relegate solutions to the distant future, when the central issues will be forgotten. But not this time.
Anand, a statesman of internationally recognized high caliber, did not waste time selecting 47 other prominent Thai personalities for his commission. To his credit, Thaksin promptly approved the list, in spite of the fact that several people on it had previously voiced strong disagreement with his earlier policies on the South. Although the commission has come up short in terms of female representation, it comprises respected figures from various religious, academic and professional backgrounds and, most importantly, several prominent Muslims.
So far it looks as if this new organ will be able to operate independently with the assistance of the government. If this condition continues until the necessary conclusions and recommendations can be made, then its mission could be hailed a success.
There is no easy cure-all recipe, of course, but the members appear to have the wisdom, tolerance and experience to identify the right blend of understanding and compassion with respect for the law. To prevail over isolated extremists, it is crucial that the commission get the ear of Muslim and other local leaders, and alert moderate Islamic communities in the South. This is naturally much easier said than done.
An encouraging sign thus far is that the goals of the commission as well as its composition have been widely acclaimed in the Thai press. This in itself creates positive momentum with repercussions into the South. Unfortunately, there have been violent incidents since the news broke, thus demonstrating the depth and complexity of the region’s problems and how high the stakes are.
The commission is not in a position to tackle violent incidents on a daily basis, but rather to consider medium- and long-term solutions to simmering grievances.
In times when terms like “human resource development” are emphasized throughout our interconnected world, it might be wise to try and fathom their echo in the three Thai provinces now in turmoil.
If, in the final analysis, the problem turns out to be one of mutual trust between Muslims and Buddhists, then, as former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan — a distinguished Muslim from the South — has written, “enlightened strategies will eventually lead us out of the quagmire. The situation is not beyond redemption.”
In essence (as another well-known academic and commission member, Chaiwat Satha-Anand, wrote last year), “the use of violence as a solution to political problems [should be] delegitimized culturally. . . . Then perhaps the demon within that enables some of us to look into the eyes of our victims and see nothing can be exorcised and the devastating effects of violence in the South mitigated.”
Beautiful words. Perhaps too theoretical and too divorced from the cruelty of our times. Still, they reflect a ray of sound thinking and hope. Friends of Thailand, friends of peace, should pray for the success of this commission, so different from many others of its kind.
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